11 Nov 2008: Analysis

Under a Sooty Exterior,
a Green China Emerges

You’ve heard the environmental horror stories: rivers running black, air unfit to breathe, two new coal-fired power plants a week. But thanks to a surging entrepreneurial spirit and new policies, China is fast becoming a leader in green innovation, from recycling to developing electric cars to harnessing the wind.

by fred pearce

Call it the new China Syndrome. Putting the world’s most populous country in the environmental doghouse is a game anyone can play. You’ve heard the litany of sins. China is buying up whole mountains in Latin America to get at the copper inside. It is the world’s largest importer of tropical hardwood, most of it hacked illegally from rain forests. Its carbon emissions are now the world’s largest, exceeding even the United States. Many of its rivers are little more than industrial discharge pipes. And didn’t you see all that smog in Beijing around the time of the Olympics?

All true, of course. But even so, much of what is said about China and its attitude toward the environment — even by usually fair-minded folk — is hypocritical and decidedly unfair.

In my travels as a journalist, I have seen the bad side. I have visited the wharves at Zhangjiagang on the River Yangtze, where they turn the rain forests of Asia, Africa and the Amazon into floors for apartments in Shanghai and Beijing. I have literally held my nose at the foul air in industrial cities from Hong Kong to the North Korean border.

I have wondered at how Beijing, once the city of the bicycle, now has a new ring road every time I visit
Just as we have off-shored our manufacturing to China, so we have off-shored our carbon emissions.
(there were seven at the last count). And I have read the statistics about how, as it builds its infrastructure, China is pouring 50 percent of all the world’s concrete.

China, in other words, does the bad things that most of the world does, but sometimes with more vigor because it is so big and growing so fast. Its development zeal feels like the United States must have felt in the late 19th century — only with a population an order of magnitude greater.

And there’s the rub. China is huge. For most of human history, it has been home to as much as a fifth of the world’s population. And many of the scary statistics simply reflect that.

China, as WWF reported recently, consumes 15 per cent of the world’s resources. But with 20 percent of the world’s population(1.3 billion people), is that really surprising? Likewise, should we be shocked that the world’s most populous country has the world’s largest carbon footprint? If China were instead a series of smaller countries each reporting their statistics separately, we probably wouldn’t turn a hair.

The people of China don’t have lesser rights because there are so many of them. China may now emit more carbon dioxide than the United States, but its per-capita emissions are only a quarter those of the U.S. And that is before we take account of the Chinese carbon footprint generated by goods that are manufactured there and then exported to the rich world.

A study by the British Tyndall Centre at Sussex University recently concluded that 23 percent of
Green China
Greenpeace
China’s carbon emissions were produced in manufacturing goods for export. Just as we have off-shored our manufacturing to China, so we have off-shored our carbon emissions. “But passing on our emissions to someone else is not cutting our emissions,” points out the author of the study, Tyndall's science policy researcher Jim Watson. Thus far, off-shoring has proved an efficient way of passing on the blame, however.

Nor should we forget that the eager new industrialists of Shenzhen and Tianjin, Suzhou and Shanghai, have been pumping poisons into the air for much less time than us in the industrialized world. And that matters, because greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere. Most of what Britain puffed into the air as James Watt’s steam engine kick-started the industrial revolution is still there. China will take several more decades of breakneck industrial growth before it can exceed the accumulated volumes of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere that should be labeled “Made in America.”

So China is not responsible for where we are today on climate change. And I doubt that either its cumulative or its its per-capita emissions will ever approach those of the U.S. Why? Because, believe it or not, China is going green.

We hear a lot about China building a new coal-fired power station every week. I checked the stats. It’s worse. It has recently been building two new 1000-megawatt plants each week. But last year, China also built more wind turbines than any other country. And its biogas and solar power industries are also growing fast.

China’s green credentials are surprisingly good in many respects. China has long led the world in aquaculture. By raising most of its fish in artificial ponds it has done a huge good turn for the world’s ocean fisheries.

On an island at the mouth of the Yangtze river near Shanghai, they are
Last year, China built more wind turbines than any other country. And its biogas and solar power industries are also growing fast.
currently building the world’s first eco-city, powered by renewable electricity, with citywide water recycling and plans for a car-free transport system. Similarly, the recently completed 1,200-kilometer railway into Tibet employed “green construction” methods, according to a paper in Science last year. And the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 is devoted to green urban design.

In June, the country officially banned free plastic bags in shops. The world’s largest plastic bag manufacturer (Chinese, of course) shut down as a result. And the Chinese are now the world’s leading recyclers.

Some people worry that much of the trash from Europe and North America gets shipped from Los Angeles, Rotterdam and Seattle to China for recycling. They seem to think that the Chinese secretly landfill it. Why would they do that? In fact, China is so desperate for raw materials to keep its industrial revolution going that it finds uses for almost any waste it can get its hands on: plastic packaging, the metal in old computers and other electronic goods. Just as the country used to run its agriculture on “night soil” (a handy euphemism for human feces), now it runs its industry on as much trash as it can get its hands on.

Witness the success of China's "Queen of Trash," Cheung Yan. Ten years ago, when China stopped logging its own natural forests to prevent a recurrence of big floods, she anticipated a paper shortage. She went to the U.S. and drove around in an old pick-up begging municipal garbage dumps to sell her their waste paper. She was so successful that today her company, Nine Dragons, ships more than 6 million ton of waste paper a year into China, which she recycles into boxes for electronics goods that will be taking the next container ship back to Europe and North America.

Nine Dragons is now the world’s largest manufacturer of packaging. Cheung is reportedly mainland China’s richest person — and possibly the
The problems that China is finding in obtaining raw materials for its manufacturing plants is pushing it into taking a world lead in waste recycling.
richest self-made woman on the planet. I don’t want to be too starry-eyed. China’s pollution problems are extremely serious, and they have global repercussions. But my guess is that China will be forced into adopting ever-greener policies. Its use of coal will soon be curtailed by urban middle-class uprisings against the smog (much as happened in Europe and North America half a century ago). And the very problems that China is finding in obtaining raw materials for its manufacturing plants is already pushing it into taking a world lead in waste recycling.

It is doing out of necessity what environmentalists have been demanding for a long time — “closing the loop” in natural resources, by mining waste to make new.

China already is the world's largest manufacturer of both wind turbines and biogas fermenters and is in the forefront of developing electric cars. Who can doubt that if the United States makes a once-for-all shift to greener energy generation in the coming decade, then the Chinese will be scrambling to become its major supplier of wind turbines and solar panels and much else. Or that if China sees the U.S. switching to renewable energy, it will rush to take the same path. Last month, consultants McKinsey and Company advised China in a new report to “charge up” for manufacture of electric cars to meet likely demand at home as well as abroad.

Call me an incorrigible optimist if you like, but it is at least possible that the two global environmental pariahs — China and the United States — could soon be leading the charge to a more climate-friendly future. And that would be a China syndrome worth nurturing.

POSTED ON 11 Nov 2008 IN Climate Energy Pollution & Health Asia North America 

COMMENTS


Amazing story about the "Queen of Trash." Where are our queens?
Posted by Sam Fromartz on 12 Nov 2008


Dear Mr. Pearce,

Thank you for spotlighting China's efforts for a
greener future, and for making an enlightening
comparison between China and the US in terms
of environmental impact. The subject is rarely
approached from this angle.

We recently completed a documentary film
about a group of Chinese university students
who embody the more hopeful aspects of
China's environmental future, reinforcing a lot of
what you're writing about in your article.

In the year leading up to the 2008 Olympics in
Beijing, Beijing Forestry University and
international NGO Future Generations teamed up
to organize the first “Green Long March” for
Chinese students. The goal: empowering young
people to become advocates for the
environment.

2,000 college students formed 10 survey teams,
from the great deserts of the northwest to the
grasslands of Inner Mongolia, to see China’s
environmental challenges up close. In our film,
The Road Ahead: The First Green Long March,
Director Ryan Wong captures the experience
through the students' eyes. We see their wonder
as they encounter the natural world in new ways
and their devastation at witnessing the the
human impact of environmental destruction.

In the process of making this film - made as a
collaboration between US based nonprofit
production company Cinereach
(www.cinereach.org) and a Chinese director and
crew - we saw the unsinkable passion and
commitment of China's young people towards a
greener future. They have a deeper
understanding than most of their US
counterparts of how closely their lives and
futures depend on the health and conservation
of the natural environment and have taken
personal responsibility for making positive
change.

With the continued commitment of Future
Generations, this effort is growing and more
students have followed in the footsteps of the
first march. We look forward to seeing where it
goes from here and hope our film will help raise
awareness around their efforts. Ideally, we'll be
able to form partnerships with organizations and
individuals who share our sense of urgency for
spreading hope and inspiring action and get
more conversations like this going.

We'll have a trailer up on our site soon, so
please keep visiting our site (www.the-road-
ahead.com) for info and updates.

Best regards,

Mike Raisler
Producer
The Road Ahead: The First Green Long March
Posted by Mike Raisler on 13 Nov 2008


The Chinese claim to be the top annual investor in renewable energy and are embarking on an unprecedented attention to green energy. In 2006, the country announced it was poised to spend $200 billon on renewables over the next 15 years. It has been coal that has pulled millions upon millions of Chinese out of the depths of poverty. The country's rise has given other countries in the region (such as the Philippines) and nations around the world major economic growth. Clean coal technologies will allow this to continue on because substantial power is needed.
Posted by Jude C on 14 Nov 2008


Mr. Pearce,
I'm also very encouraged by your hopefulness about the emerging environmental movement in China. I spent August 2008 in Beijing shooting a film about the environmental work that IENGOs are doing and the way that the Chinese government opened up to allow this work to happen. A lot of our film is also focused on environmental education, and I think basing an environmental movement on EE sends a hopeful message to the rest of the world. In China, it was bad, yes, but it's getting better.

Mike, I was actually referred to the work being done by Future Generations/The Long Green March by a contact when we were shooting in Beijing. I'm looking forward to your film, and I'll keep checking your web site.

My video editor told me he'll have a trailer for me by the end of November that we'll put up on our site. We expect our film to be finished in the early spring.

I've also been called an incorrigible optimist, but I think that is needed to balance the Western media's pessimism. According to Jim Fallows in 'China's Silver Lining' in the Atlantic Monthly, China's situation, depending on how it is approached, is the world greatest environmental crisis or the world's greatest environmental opportunity.
Posted by Tessa Venell on 14 Nov 2008


Dear Mr. Pearce,

It is wonderful to have writers standing up to the
trend and speaking truths. Even after 30 years,
there is so much the US and other countries do
not understand about China and often they are
misled by articles that only tell part of the story.
I appreciate your words and am glad that Mike
Raisler and others have made comment. I hope
you have a chance to look further into The
Green Long March as it is now the largest youth
conservation awareness movement in China. Bill
McKibben was also with us for some of our
activities this summer and produced a short film
which can be seen at 350.org.
As one who tries to look for what is working and
scale it up, I too am optimistic for a more
climate-friendly future.
Posted by Frances Fremont-Smith on 16 Nov 2008


The whole world owes China a huge debt for it's one-child policy!
Posted by Carol Marsh on 16 Nov 2008


We are very grateful for all those who are creating awareness through positive documentaries and education. It is the first step to change for a greener and more sustainable future.

I am looking forward to the documentary and hope it gets released either through national tv or through other mass distribution channels. I hope it becomes part of the curiculum in Chinese education.

I will be visiting the websites listed above to be kept informed and hope I can participate in the movement for a better tomorrow.
Posted by Zn Huang on 25 Nov 2008


What a fetching idea. Instead of arms races and races to space, a green race between two afflicted, afflicting and capable nations. Thanks for your perspective and logically grounded optimism, Mr. Pearce.
Posted by Brad Stracener on 27 Mar 2009


Comments have been closed on this feature.
fred pearceABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He is environment consultant for New Scientist magazine and author of the recent books When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence. His latest book is Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff (Beacon Press, 2008). Pearce has also writtern for Yale e360 on world population trends and preserving seed diversity.
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